Monday, May 17, 2010

The Morel of the Story

Growing up in Northern Michigan forest, it was a family tradition to hunt for morels every year.  This was one of my grandpa's favorite activities, along with fishing and drinking.  My memories of mushroom hunting are strong and visceral, including the smells of dry forest and that distinctive aroma when the knife severs a fresh morel.  There was the slow walk through the woods, scanning every tree, checking directions, moss, any rotten log.  And when someone spotted one of the elusive fungi, we all swarmed that area, knowing that there would be more nearby.  Usually, we suddenly realized we had been looking at them all along, but couldn't see them, like an optical illusion.  Later, my parents would saute them in butter; another strong memory because those were some of the few "happy family" moments at our house, and I still remember the smell of warm butter-soaked morels.

Western Washington is not considered a place to find morels, so I was surprised 3 years ago to find a few growing in our backyard, right against the house.  They were huge and healthy, so I battered and fried them and served them to my family.  Anouk loved them until Mike came home and said they were disgusting.  She has refused to take a bite ever since.

Last year, they popped up in the gravel in our front yard, not far from the front door.  There were about 100, all healthy, modestly sized.  I gave most of them away.

This year, I was disappointed that I didn't see morels in the gravel again in April.  I searched for any signs of baby morels popping up, and finally gave up on it.  And one day, Mike noticed a couple between the rocks in our perennial garden.  We started looking around and realized there were close to 100 right in nearby garden beds.  Over the weeks, we kept finding more, with most of them growing right outside my kitchen door.  One day, I was so astonished by the numbers, I counted how many were growing in about a 4' x 3' bed, and there were 133!  I'm sure there have been hundreds by now, all over the garden.

I've been giving the morels away to people who will appreciate them - bags full.  Still, I find that they have been waning and getting sort of dry on top.  When the weather turned warm and sunny, I worried that they would all shrivel up, so I harvested pounds of them last Friday.  Following directions I found online, I strung them on thread with a needle and hung them to dry.
This has worked very well.  They are all shriveled into little crispy nuggets and are stored in a paper bag in my pantry.  Yesterday, while watering our raspberries, I discovered ANOTHER good sized patch of morels.  Big, juicy ones.  So I picked them , soaked them, and I'm trying a different method.  I'm laying them on the counter on a dry towel, and will turn them regularly.  I think this will work just as well, without the comedy of me stringing them, losing my grip so they all fall on the floor, washing them, re-stringing, etc.  Besides, now the first batch are all snugly dried on strings, like really ugly necklaces, and I'm not sure how to take them off to cook them.

Speaking of cooking morels, I found this recipe online, which I think I will try:
    1/2 pound of fresh morels 2 tablespoons unsalted butter salt & pepper to taste 4 cups of chicken stock (degreased if home made) 4 egg yolks 1 cup heavy cream
Clean morels and cut into small, spoon size pieces.Heat butter in 2 qt. saucepan, then add morels & salt & pepper. Cover & simmer for about 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Add the stock & bring just to the boil. Meanwhile mix the egg yolks & heavy cream together in a separate bowl. Slowly add this mixture to the stock & morels & heat it while stirring till hot but do not let it boil or the eggs will curdle. Taste & correct the seasoning with salt & pepper and a little lemon juice if you'd like. Serves 4 normal people or 1 or 2 morel maniacs!

I am baffled by the way our morels have migrated to entirely different parts of the yard, and hope they will return next spring.  I am careful to cut them, rather than pull out the stem.  When I soak them, I pour the water back into the garden beds, hoping any spores will reproduce.  Apparently, it takes 5 years for new morels to grow, so it's possible I'll see them return to the other areas in the future.  I welcome any advice from readers about propagating and cooking morels.

1 comment:

  1. Oh for the love of a good morel patch. I was suprised to hear that morels aren't considered Western Washington mushrooms because I've always eaten them but I've never come across such a treasure trove! If you're ever looking to give more away, my frying pan and butter are always at the ready!